The heart of every fisherman holds stories to be told. Narratives that tell big tales of long, sun-soaked journeys in the open ocean; of hunting for the largest and most unconquerable of fishes. No one, unless they were there, can ever really know how big the sea beast was, or if it really had a humanlike eye, or razor-sharp fins. A life-changing reality becomes a ghost-like memory, bound to the size afforded to the storyteller’s animate voice and arm-length.
Before the age of camera smartphones, or meticulously stuffed fish taxidermy, a method was discovered—by accident, as most ingenious methods are— to record the size and unique characteristics of a caught fish. It’s a practice so reliable that fishermen today swear by it. The uncanny resemblance of the catch; the perfectly preserved snapshot. It is known as gyotaku.
Meaning “fish rubbing” in Japanese, gyotaku is a traditional practice that consists of literally rubbing shoji paper (rice paper) onto a painted fish. After rubbing the entire layout, the paper is removed to show an exact imprint of the sea creature.
In 1862, a samurai warrior named Naotsuna Ujiie, created the first gyotaku print by mistake when he laid one of the fish he caught in a cloth to throw over his shoulder while walking back to his village. Muddied from laying out on the riverbank, the fish left an impression on the cloth: a detailed image of its size and scales. From that point on, savvy Japanese fishermen began imprinting their prized catches. The line between recordkeeping and hobby began to blur.
Centuries later and thousands of miles east to the Hawaiian Islands, gyotaku has grown into a unique and timeless art form. The practice corroborates tall tales and legitimizes cherished winnings and, evolving beyond the original purpose of fish documentation in Japan, has become an art genre producing works evocative of the island fishing lifestyle. Hawai‘i artists have added modern twists to the traditional Japanese practice.
“Gyotaku was never supposed to be an art,” says Shane Kaneshiro, creative director of Hawai‘i’s leading fishing supply and marine safety company P.O.P. (Pacific Ocean Producers) Fishing & Marine. “Hawai‘i has such a unique culture of food, especially fish, it’s no wonder we’ve adapted this traditional practice into what it is today.”
Few museums hold original copies of gyotaku prints, and many are unable to interpret the history and validity of the artwork.
“Not many studies have been done on the art of gyotaku,” says Honolulu Museum of Art’s research associate for Japanese art, Stephen Salel, who specializes in Japanese ukiyo-e (pictures of the floating world) woodblock prints. “Mainly because gyotaku was used for documentation, it’s a fairly new art form compared to other historical pieces.”
“Catch ‘em, print ‘em, eat ‘em” is the motto for local gyotaku artist and fisherman Naoki Hayashi of “Gyotaku by Naoki.” Hayashi helps local fishermen create gyotaku imprints of their valued catches. Framed likenesses of 100-pound ulua (giant trevally) and supple tako (octopus) polish the warmly colored walls of Hayashi’s warehouse in Kāne‘ohe, O‘ahu. When he receives a call from a customer who just “caught a big one,” Hayashi will stop everything to make time for the fresh catch.
“I always say yes,” says Hayashi, a former scientist turned-scuba-instructor, turned gyotaku-artist. His main objective is to get the fish home in time for dinner. “I don’t waste catches. Local boys like eat ‘em anyway so gyotaku works perfectly.”
Using non-toxic black acrylic paint and long sheets of delicate yet sturdy shoji paper, he manages shelves upon shelves of seemingly endless deadlines, each holding a compelling narrative. “It’s really a pleasure and honor to be a part of someone’s story,” he says. “I couldn’t ask for anything more.”
For Maui-based artist Kalani DeWitt Lickle, a curiosity about gyotaku became a fascination after researching the art and taking a yearlong voyage through Southeast Asia.
“That trip really opened my eyes to nature and how beautiful our environment is,” Lickle says. “Gyotaku just naturally grew with me.”
Armed with some computer paper and Sheaffer ink, Lickle “fooled around” with his hobby catches and soon grew it into a thriving business called Natural Impressions in Ha‘ikū, Maui.
“I only use environmentally friendly products now, though,” says Lickle with a laugh. He has since graduated from using computer supplies. “Just like we make sure to preserve the fish so that the owner can take it home to eat, we use materials that won’t cause harmful waste.”
Like Hayashi and all practitioners of gyotaku, Lickle doesn’t believe in wasting fish. Unlike the average printer, however, he grows many of his materials himself. Kukui nut bark, squid ink and even betel nut are some of his supplies of choice, along with daikon (radish), snow peas, hearts of palm and kalamungay (drumstick tree). All are grown in his family garden.
“I wear a lot of hats,” Lickle laughs.
Today in Hawaii, gyotaku is not only an art form but also a tool for outreach and education. Both Lickle and Hayashi use gyotaku to teach young children about the science and history of ocean life, and the importance of preserving Hawai‘i’s fishing culture with great care and responsibility.
“I use gyotaku to teach them about science and how it intertwines with everything I do,” Hayashi says. “How the moon affects the tide, the change of seasons and what fish I’m able to find and catch. It’s all relevant, and it helps them see the connection of how important our environment is and what we need to do to preserve it for the future.”
From fishing trips to classroom presentations, Lickle and Hayashi are passionate about sharing their craft. Both say they find themselves heading out to their ocean “office” without the need to catch anything. Unlike most, they can say they’ve created a business that mingles with pleasure.
“I can’t stay away,” Hayashi says. “I just love it.”